When Fox Networks Group (FGN) get in touch and ask if we’d be up for an unusual project, we’re intrigued. They have an idea for a promo spot for “One Strange Rock”, a new NatGeo miniseries exploring the natural wonder of Planet Earth from some unique perspectives, helmed by renowned filmmaker Darren Aronovksy, and hosted by the ever popular Will Smith.

When does sound design become music? This project requires us to delve deep into that question, and define some clear answers for our client, so they can decide exactly how they want their promo spot to be sonically expressed.

The initial idea is to take a very well known music track, and recreate it entirely from nature sound design elements. The trick is that the international television audience must immediately recognize the track, within the first couple of seconds of the spot. Our client isn’t sure if it’s possible to do this in a way which really works, and they’re seeking our input on the development of the creative brief, as well as the execution of the final sound and music.

To get started, we have to select the right track for this. After working through a range of options, we recommend one track in particular, as it has a highly recognized epic intro, essential for the up front audience grab, and which will work brilliantly with some huge sound design elements inspired by Mother Nature. Our client agrees, and so we then start to explore, with multiple iterations testing the balance of sound design versus music in the piece.

Our challenge is to turn one of the most famous pieces of music in history into a sound design score which works on a creative, technical and emotional level, both with the original score, and with the visual cut. Here we break down the project, and talk about how we got to the end result.


Capturing Real Sound

 

Here’s a montage of some our recording sessions where many of the sounds in “One Strange Rock” were originally captured. Having our own source material rather than using purchased libraries is a critical part of being able to give each project a unique fresh feel, and have ultimate flexibility in the way we can manipulate the sound in our creative edits.

01 Big Bang and Rocky Chaos

 

What is the soundtrack of the Big Bang, and the making of our Blue Planet? Da-Da-Da-Baaaaaah!

Q. What Are We Listening To?
A. The sound design layers in the intro section, broken down with the musical motif

Q. Any Key Techniques?
A. Side chain compression to give extra weight to the synthetic big bang impact, for a larger than life sound!

Q. Creative Aspects ?
A. Syncing rocky impact sounds to the rhythm of the string melody brought interesting emphasis on the first 3 notes, with greater detail added on the 4th.

Q. Overall, what went into this ?
A. For the Big Bang we have impacts from modular synths and non-tonal, heavily processed warbling effects, mainly using granular synthetic as a starting point. The rocky sections involve more traditional huge cinematic impacts, layered with rocky earthy sounds, like rocks tumbling only slowed right down.

Q. Favourite bits ?
A. Definitely the contrast the synthetic abstract opening, followed by a more organic, though still exaggerated, rocky sounding section.

02 Nature Scenes

 

Now we start to focus on the natural aspects Earth’s formation, the detail of the natural elements, how they wrap around the musical motif, using wind, water drops, insects, plants and natural elements all technically designed to weave through the score.

Q. What Are We Listening To?
A. The more nature-based sections of the piece, locking to the fast paced strings

Q. Any Key Techniques?
A. Super important to find the balance between having the SFX work both with the music AND the visuals, so a juggling act here. At some points the audio is deliberately offset with the visuals, so it works better with the music. Other places we’ve prioritized the visual hit points. For creating emphasis, placing the audio a little later than a very dramatic visual hit point, can make a big impact moment!

Q. Creative Aspects ?
A. Subtly pitching SFX to certain musical notes in the piece really helps the music and sound design gel. It means our client can easily choose at a later stage to have us lower the music in the mix for a more sound design led section if they choose, because the sound design also carries those recognizable melodic tones, so important for the audience recognition and engagement we’re aiming for. The 3 water drops sync with the strings notes pitches, and also the tonal parts of the wind/atmos are tuned.

Q. Overall, What Went Into This ?
A. A huge variety of atmospheric location recordings, together with more detailed action sounds, like the snapping tree branch SFX. Getting a smooth sonic flow between the contrasting sounds took a lot of tweaking in this section, because we had to follow rapid fire changing visual cuts with very high precision.

Q. Favourite Bits ?
A. The arrangement. This section took the longest time of all the work we did to get right, as there are so many minute pieces of audio each serving a specific purpose, whilst staying in lockstep intensity with the music and visuals.

03 Fast Paced Landscapes

 

Planet Earth’s topography expressed visually in this promo spot is so diverse, we needed to make a wide variety of tonal elements from nature fit with the musical layers whilst keeping pace with the fast scene changes and edits.

Q. What Are We Listening To?
A.Landscape sound and atmospheres of different varieties, from the alien to the familiar, expressed with quick strong atmospheric sound edits.

Q. Any Key Techniques?
A. With each scene being so different, using contrasting frequency spectrum sounds really helped each scene stand out.

Q. Creative Aspects ?
A. Using synthetic elements for the more ‘spacey’ visual scenes infused some sonic uniqueness and gave a great opportunity for extra tonal music synchronicity. Matching the wind howls to the musical notes proved to be critical, as without that the music felt off-key and didn’t sound right. Once we nailed that aspect, the whole piece took a huge leap forward, and really came together.

Q. Overall, What Went Into This ?
A. A mixture of familiar atmos sounds, and a load of abstract elements like processed breaths and synth shimmers. All the natural sounds were taken from our field foley recordings, to keep an organic thread running through.

Q. Favourite Bits ?
A.The dynamic, fast paced intensity of this section. Love it!

04 Huge Explosion to Microbes

 

We loved this section of the promo, the huge dynamic changes, from underwater scenes, to ice floes and huge water impacts, the creative end result had to sound big as the musical score was hitting its stride, rhythmically exciting. The challenge of this section, was turning the idea and moving image of a waterfall into an explosive musical score

Q. What Are We Listening To?
A. One of the more grandiose sections of the music, paired with striking visuals featuring cinematic sound emphasis.

Q. Any Key Techniques?
A. As the music is very intense here, having instantly identifiable sounds that stand out from the score was important. We added lots of Taiko, hits, bass hits, and dozens of layers of water hits to max out our session, and we layered the narrative detail on top to retain the sonic imprint of what the audience sees. This is sound design with a lot of technical detail, very fast cuts and loads of movement.

Q. Creative Aspects ?
A. Using non-rhythmic sounds in rhythmical ways was challenging, creating the waterfall downpour rhythm, with the natural waterfall sounds being so static, took some time to get right.

Q. Overall, what went into this ?
A. Everything from custom made synth bubbles to fit the musical rhythms, to water splashes slowed right down.

Q. Favourite bits ?
A.This is one of the more intense sections both musically and visually, and creatively expresses the largest scale elements shown in the piece.

05 Rhythmic Contrast

 

Our rhythms of nature needed to match the widely known Beethoven’s 5th motif … again … Da da da baaaaaaaaa!

Q. What Are We Listening To?
A. Similar to the intro, this section has the same rhythm but different emphasis with different sonic qualities.

Q. Any Key Techniques?
A. The thunder is a long drawn out sound, so keeping the thunder rhythms tight and punchy required a lot of compression and resampling. It took a lot of detailed pitching of elements, thunder, lightning, layers, and baby cry, and finding the right balance of thunder, size, and scale whilst maintaining an audible rhythmical contrast linking the musical aspect was a tricky balance, as the huge dynamic natural elements had to have the same rhythm.

Q. Creative Aspects ?
A.The difference between the scenes, but similarities in rhythm were super important to nail.

Q. Overall, what went into this ?
A. Loads of thunder sounds, creating thunder sounds for paper tears, pitching hawks and baby whines.

Q. Favourite bits ?
A.The contrast of elements, from huge and punchy, to smooth and broad. And the baby at the end.. if you listen closely, you’ll hear our baby cry pitch matches with the final note of the score in this section.

06 Layering Sound

 

Our huge finale …

Q. What Are We Listening To?
A. The strong tail piece, that features quick cuts, intense orchestra, and detailed sfx.

Q. Any Key Techniques?
A. Having each scene’s action syncing with the music, while the visual cuts sometimes had slightly different timing, made it challenging to find the right arrangement balance of the audio. After some trial and error, we made it work.

Q. Creative Aspects ?
A. There’s a general crescendo in the intensity of the music, and the SFX had to match it, both in volume and creative sound choices.

Q. Overall, what went into this ?
A. Layerings of whoosh movements, delicate detailed actions, and huge impacts. Human voices, human breaths and exhales were recorded, to delicately create a rhythmical and organic sounding ending as well as packing a punch. Also included are a long list of insects, organic fruit & veg, water splashes, all sculpted to the end rhythmical focal point.

Q. Favourite bits ?
A. The sum of all parts where every element works beautifully together